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Colin Purbrook: 1936-1999
Colin Purbrook
Pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader

Born: February 26, 1936 in Seaford, England
Died: February 5, 1999 in London, England

The Grand Vizier of Parties

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Purbrook, Colin Colin Purbrook was a notably versatile musician in the too often rigidly compartmentalised UK jazz scene, and moved easily back and forth between traditional jazz, modern jazz and theatrical productions. Primarily a pianist, he began his professional career as a bass player, and also played trumpet, trombone and clarinet.

He took up the piano at the age of six, encouraged by his father, who was a professional pianist. He won three prizes at the Brighton Music Festival at the age of 11, and was awarded a scholarship to read music at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge University, in 1954, where he added bass and trombone to his repertory, and appeared on the latter instrument as part of student band in the film Bachelor of Hearts.

He returned to London in 1957, and joined the band led by the idiosyncratic Scottish clarinetist Sandy Brown early in 1958, initially as the bass player. By the summer, however, he was holding down the piano chair in the band Brown co-led with another eminent Scottish musician, trumpeter Al Fairweather.

In his autobiography, Brown dubbed Purbrook the "grand vizier of parties" in rather dubious honour of his infamous house in West Hamstead, a notoriously squalid pad where jazz musicians congregated in numbers for frequent wild parties.

The pianist was making his mark on stage as well, however. His influences included the great Art Tatum and the blues-rooted pianism of Wynton Kelly, expressed through a refined touch and highly developed harmonic awareness.

In 1960, he was briefly part of the so-called "Geraldo's Navy", the pool of musicians hired by the former band-leader to play on the transatlantic liners. His ability to adapt to musical circumstances became evident very early in his career. He was regularly featured with Kenny Ball's traditional jazz outfit, the more mainstream swing of the Allan Ganley-Ronnie Ross Jazzmakers, and the bop-inclined direction of the Ronnie Scott-Jimmy Deuchar Quintet, and was featured alongside Charles Mingus on the score for the film All Night Long, shot in London in 1961.

That pattern continued throughout the early part of the decade, in which he co-led a quintet with saxophonist and clarinetist Tony Coe, and toured with bop saxophonist Tubby Hayes and traditionalist trumpeter Kenny Baker. He led the trio which accompanied the London production of Beyond The Fringe in 1963, and played bass in Dudley Moore's Trio at Peter Cook's The Establishment club in Soho that same year.

Spells with Don Rendell and Ian Carr in 1964 were followed by another stint with Coe, and a return to Sandy Brown's group in 1966. By this stage, he was also much in demand to accompany visiting American musicians, following an end to a long running inter-union dispute which had opened the doors to a regular stream of big names from across the Atlantic. Those he accompanied included Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Chet Baker, Al Cohn, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and Barney Kessel. He made his last public appearance as a performer with saxophonist Scott Hamilton in London in December.

He formed his own band in 1967, and led different versions of it throughout the ensuing decades, from a trio to a celebrated but too infrequently heard octet, which featured the late Phil Seaman on drums. He continued to work with visiting Americans, and featured in many British bands, including a spell with Humphrey Lyttelton in 1972, and regularly accompanied singer Annie Ross.


From the late Seventies, he was musical director on a number of theatrical productions in the West End, including Bubbling Brown Sugar (1977), One Mo' Time (1981), and the Billie Holiday tribute Lady Day (1987), as well as Alan Plater's Rent Party (1989) at Stratford East. He worked with Gil Evans on the score of the film Absolute Beginners in 1986.

In his latter years he developed a strong interest in electronic music, and built his own well-equipped studio to pursue that interest. Ill-health hampered his plans to produce film soundtracks and other commercial projects, but was heard on impeccable form on saxophonist Bobby Wellins's tribute to Billie Holiday, The Satin Album, in 1996, and recorded a final jazz album with his trio, My Ideal, in 1997.

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